A Providential Intervention
The valley narrowed as they advanced, the banks rising gently on
both sides. Both dragons had flown straight to a grove of tall,
spreading trees. On coming near to this, they noticed a faint
smell like that of the dragon, and also like the trace they found
in the air on leaving the Callisto the day before, after they had
sought safety within it. Soon it almost knocked them down.
"We must get to wind
ard," said Cortlandt. "I already feel
faint, and believe those dragons could kill a man by breathing on
Accordingly, they skirted around the grove, and having made a
quarter circle--for they did not wish the dragons to wind
them--again drew nearer. Tree after tree was passed, and finally
they saw an open space twelve or fifteen acres in area at the
centre of the grove, when they were arrested by a curious sound
of munching. Peering among the trunks of the huge trees, they
advanced cautiously, but stopped aghast. In the opening were at
least a hundred dragons devouring the toadstools with which the
ground was covered. Many of them were thirty to forty feet long,
with huge and terribly long, sharp claws, and jaws armed with
gleaming batteries of teeth. Though they had evidently lungs,
and the claws and mouth of an animal, they reminded the observers
in many respects of insects enormously exaggerated, for their
wings, composed of a sort of transparent scale, were small, and
moved, as they had already seen, at far greater speed than those
of a bird. Their projecting eyes were also set rigidly in their
heads instead of turning, and consisted of a number of flat
surfaces or facets, like a fly's eye, so that they could see
backward and all around, each facet seeing anything the rays from
which came at right angles to its surface. This beautiful grove
was doubtless their feeding-ground, and, as such, was likely to
be visited by many more. Concluding it would be wise to let
their wounded game escape, the three men were about to retreat,
having found it difficult to breathe the air even at that
distance from the monsters, when the wounded dragon that they had
observed moving about in a very restless manner, and evidently
suffering a good deal from the effect of its wounds, espied them,
and, with a roar that made the echoes ring, started towards them
slowly along the ground, followed by the entire herd, the nearer
of which now also saw them. Seeing that their lives were in
danger, the hunters quickly regained the open, and then stretched
their legs against the wind. The dragons came through the trees
on the ground, and then, raising themselves by their wings, the
whole swarm, snorting, and darkening the air with their deadly
breath, made straight for the men, who by comparison looked like
Lilliputians. With the slug from his right barrel Bearwarden
ended the wounded dragon's career by shooting him through the
head, and with his left laid low the one following. Ayrault also
killed two huge monsters, and Cortlandt killed one and wounded
another. Their supply of prepared cartridges was then exhausted,
and they fell back on their revolvers and ineffective spreading
shot. Resolved to sell their lives dearly, they retreated,
keeping their backs to the wind, with the poisonous dragons in
front. But the breeze was very slight, and they were being
rapidly blinded and asphyxiated by the loathsome fumes, and
deafened by the hideous roaring and snapping of the dragons'
jaws. Realizing that they could not much longer reply to the
diabolical host with lead, they believed their last hour had
come, when the ground on which they were making their last stand
shook, there was a rending of rocks and a rush of imprisoned
steam that drowned even the dragons' roar, and they were
separated from them by a long fissure and a wall of smoke and
vapour. Struggling back from the edge of the chasm, they fell
upon the ground, and then for the first time fully realized that
the earthquake had saved them, for the dragons could not come
across the opening, and would not venture to fly through the
smoke and steam. When they recovered somewhat from the shock,
they cut a number of cartridges in the same way that they had
prepared those that had done them such good service, and kept one
barrel of each gun loaded with that kind.
"We may thank Providence," said Bearwarden, "for that escape. I
hope we shall have no more such close calls."
With a parting glance at the chasm that had saved their lives,
and from which a cloud still arose, they turned slightly to the
right of their former course and climbed the gently rising bank.
When near the top, being tired of their exciting experiences,
they sat down to rest. The ground all about them was covered
with mushrooms, white on top and pink underneath.
"This is a wonderful place for fungi," said Ayrault. "Here,
doubtless, we shall be safe from the dragons, for they seemed to
prefer the toadstools." As he lay on the ground he watched one
particular mushroom that seemed to grow before his eyes.
Suddenly, as he looked, it vanished. Dumfounded at this
unmistakable manifestation of the phenomenon they thought they
had seen on landing, he called his companions, and, choosing
another mushroom, the three watched it closely. Presently,
without the least noise or commotion, that also disappeared,
leaving no trace, and the same fate befell a number of others.
At a certain point of their development they vanished as
completely as a bubble of air coming to the surface of water,
except that they caused no ripple, leaving merely a small
depression where they had stood.
"Well," said Bearwarden, "in all my travels I never have seen
anything like this. If I were at a sleight-of-hand performance,
and the prestidigitateur, after doing that, asked for my theory,
I should say, 'I give it up.' How is it with you, doctor?" he
asked, addressing Cortlandt.
"There must be an explanation," replied Cortlandt, "only we do
not know the natural law to which the phenomenon is subject,
having had no experience with it on earth. We know that all
substances can be converted into gases, and that all gases can be
reduced to liquids, and even solids, by the application of
pressure and cold. If there is any way by which the visible
substance of these fungi can be converted into its invisible
gases, as water into oxygen and hydrogen, what we have seen can
be logically explained. Perhaps, favoured by some affinity of
the atmosphere, its constituent parts are broken up and become
gases at this barometric pressure and temperature. We must ask
the spirit, if he visits us again."
"I wish he would," said Ayrault; "there are lots of things I
should like to ask him."
"Presidents of corporations and other chairmen," said Bearwarden,
"are not usually superstitious, and I, of course, take no stock
in the supernatural; but somehow I have a well-formed idea that
our friend the bishop, with the great power of his mind over
matter, had a hand in that earthquake. He seems to have an
exalted idea of our importance, and may be exerting himself to
make things pleasant."
At this point the sun sank below the horizon, and they found
themselves confronted with night.
"Dear, dear!" said Bearwarden, "and we haven't a crumb to eat.
I'll stand the drinks and the pipes," he continued, passing
around his ubiquitous flask and tobacco-pouch.
"If I played such pranks with my interior on earth," said
Cortlandt, helping himself to both, "as I do on this planet, it
would give me no end of trouble, but here I seem to have the
digestion of an ostrich."
So they sat and smoked for an hour, till the stars twinkled and
the rings shone in their glory.
"Well," said Ayrault, finally, "since we have nothing but
motions to lay on the table, I move we adjourn."
"The only motion I shall make," said Cortlandt, who was already
undressed, "will be that of getting into bed," saying which, he
rolled himself in his blanket and soon was fast asleep.
Having decided that, on account of the proximity of the dragons,
a man must in any event be on the watch, they did not set the
protection-wires. From the shortness of the nights, they divided
them into only two watches of from two hours to two and a half
each, so that, even when constant watch duty was necessary, each
man had one full night's sleep in three. On this occasion
Ayrault and Cortlandt were the watchers, Cortlandt having the
morning and Ayrault the evening watch. Many curious quadruped
birds, about the size of large bears, and similar in shape,
having bear-shaped heads, and several creatures that looked like
the dragons, flew about them in the moonlight; but neither
watcher fired a shot, as the creatures showed no desire to make
an attack. All these species seemed to belong to the owl or bat
tribe, for they roamed abroad at night.